Asia
1:02 am
Wed January 30, 2013

In China, The Government Isn't The Only Spy Game In Town

Originally published on Wed January 30, 2013 8:44 am

The final of two reports

It all started with a local Chinese official.

He couldn't figure out how his wife, who suspected him of having an affair, knew the contents of his private conversations.

"His wife knew things that he said in his car and office, including conversations over the telephone," recalls Qi Hong, a former journalist from Shandong province in eastern China, and a friend of the official.

So Qi asked a buddy who owned bug-detecting equipment to help.

"This friend discovered a listening device under the official's car seat," Qi recalls. "In his office, he discovered a tiny hidden camera on the bookshelf."

Qi and the local official were shocked: "It dawned on us: This sort of thing was happening a lot in China."

China is becoming a surveillance state. In recent years, the government has installed more than 20 million surveillance cameras around the country.

Officials use them to solve crimes, but also to monitor democracy advocates and critics of the regime in regions like Tibet. More and more Chinese people appear to be spying on each other as well.

For Love Or Money

After helping the official, Qi bought some bug-detecting equipment himself. Over the next year, he says, he helped more than a hundred friends find more than 300 surveillance devices.

Qi says many people were bugged by suspicious wives or jealous mistresses. In other cases, though, he says government officials spied on each other.

Qi says when officials realized they were under surveillance, they panicked, fearing colleagues had captured images of them taking payoffs.

"People had heart attacks," Qi recalls over cups of tea in the back of an empty restaurant. "They were extremely scared, frightened, sweating all over with panicky looks on their faces."

Lu Su, an official in Qi's home province of Shandong, may have felt the same way this month. Hidden camera video surfaced on China's Internet showing Lu taking a gift card — a common form for bribes in China — from a visitor in his office.

"No problem. No problem," Lu says on the videotape, which was shot from the ceiling. "I will certainly provide good service."

Lu has since been suspended from his job.

Local officials aren't the only ones targeted for monitoring. Last year, The New York Times reported that one reason former Politburo member Bo Xilai was taken into custody was because he wiretapped Hu Jintao, chairman of the Communist Party.

Qi says Chinese officials spy on one another because there is so little trust and so much to be gained politically and financially. He says some officials spy on their colleagues to get a piece of the action.

"You may get some illegal benefits. I want them, too. But you don't want to share with me," says Qi, describing the way officials think.

So, Qi says, an official will videotape another in a compromising position and apply pressure to get a cut of bribe money. Qi says distrust is so deep, he has seen officials hug each other when greeting.

"This is not Chinese etiquette, but why did Chinese officials import it?" Qi says. "The reality is they use this legitimate hugging and intimacy to pat down each other to check if the other person is carrying a listening device."

Qi, 54, is a big guy, well over 6 feet tall, with a lazy eye. During a three-hour conversation, he comes off as thoughtful, sincere and disturbed by the deterioration of social trust in China. He shows me some of his equipment, including a machine about the size of an iPad but considerably thicker, called a "Wireless Camera Hunter." It has a video screen and three antennae to detect wireless signals; it retails for nearly $1,600.

Qi explains that the device scans frequencies for wireless camera signals. When it finds one, it displays the images the surveillance camera is capturing in real time.

Listening devices and hidden cameras are illegal in China but easy to buy. I found a vendor in a Shanghai electronics market who openly sold tiny surveillance equipment hidden inside pens, buttons, glasses and USB drives.

Qi says he has found surveillance cameras planted in some pretty personal places.

"They generally aim at people's beds and where they shower," Qi says. "They want to know your secrets, your private life."

Volume Of Spying Is A Sign Of The Times

After talking to Qi, I decided to go on a bug hunt. Friends of mine are concerned about listening devices, so I picked up a detector for about $35 and went to their office. I turned off office equipment to avoid any undue interference and went to work. In just five minutes, I detected bugs in a lamp, several phones and two fax machines.

Some of the most avid users of surveillance technology in China are private detectives. Detective agencies emerged in the 1990s as urban China grew rich and adultery boomed.

One of China's more celebrated detectives is Wei Wenjun, who has worked in Shanghai for two decades. Wei estimates he has handled some 1,600 adultery cases. His nickname: "the Mistress Killer."

Recently, though, the Chinese government has cracked down on detectives, enforcing a new law against illegally obtaining personal information. Scores of detectives have been arrested, according to the state-run Shanghai Daily.

Officials say they are trying to protect citizens' privacy. Wei says they are also trying to protect themselves.

"Our profession is seen as a serious concern by China's high-level officials," Wei says through nicotine-stained teeth at a tea house. "Mistresses are what corrupt officials are most afraid of. That's the weakest link in their defense system."

Wei says the volume of surveillance, infidelity and distrust is a sign of the times. He sees it as a natural result of the country's rush into capitalism with no moral framework to guide its people.

"The Chinese lost their belief system," Wei says. "The Chinese completely lost their souls."

Qi, the bug detector, feels much the same way. After a year of helping people find surveillance devices, Qi quit. He found the process and its implications depressing.

"I felt very stressed and in pain," Qi says. "I'd seen so many strange phenomena and illegal things."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Okay. Yesterday on this program we heard how the Communist Party in China is using tens of millions of surveillance cameras to monitor the country and spy on some citizens. Today we hear about how some Chinese are spying on each other. We meet a man who got a unique view of China after spending a year sweeping homes and offices for secret listening devices and cameras. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Qi Hong is a former journalist from East China's Shandong province. He began doing counter-surveillance work on the side a couple of years ago. It started with a friend, a local official whose wife suspected he was having an affair. Qi's buddy couldn't figure out how his wife knew details of his private conversations.

QI HONG: (Through translator) His wife knew things that he said in his car and his office, including conversations over the telephone. Sometimes, when they quarreled, his wife would bring up some of these things.

LANGFITT: So Qi asked another friend, who owned bug-detecting equipment, to help.

QI: (Through translator) This friend discovered a listening device under the official's car seat. In his office he discovered a tiny hidden camera on the bookshelf. We were both shocked. It dawned on us, in recent years this sort of thing was happening a lot in China.

LANGFITT: Qi bought some bug-detecting equipment himself. And over the next year, he says, he helped more than a hundred friends find more than 300 surveillance devices. Bugs are illegal in China, but easy to buy. You can find bugs hidden in pens, buttons, eyeglasses, USB drives and power strips. Qi found surveillance cameras planted in some pretty personal places.

QI: (Through translator) They generally aim at people's beds and where they shower. They want to know your secrets, your private life.

LANGFITT: Adultery is rampant in urban China. Qi says many people were bugged by suspicious wives or mistresses. In other cases, though, he said government officials spied on each other. Qi said when officials realized they were under surveillance, they panicked, fearing colleagues had captured them taking payoffs.

QI: (Through translator) People had heart attacks. They were extremely scared, frightened, sweating all over with panicky looks on their faces. They were speechless.

LANGFITT: Lu Su, an official in Qi's home province of Shandong, may have had the same reaction this month. A hidden camera video surfaced on China's Internet showing Lu at his desk. He appears to take a gift card, a common form for bribes here, from a visitor.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

LU SU: (Speaking foreign language)

LANGFITT: No problem. No problem. I will certainly provide good service, Lu says. Lu has since been suspended from his job. And spying isn't just a threat to low level officials. Last year the New York Times reported that one reason former Politburo member Bo Xilai was taken into custody was because he wiretapped Hu Jintao, chairman of the Communist Party.

Qi Hong says Chinese officials spy on each another because there is so little trust and so much to be gained politically and financially. He says sometimes they spy because they want a piece of the action.

QI: (Through translator) You may get some illegal benefits. I want them too. But you don't want to share with me. When I find out your vulnerability, I will subtly suggest problems you have and you will panic. A very good option is for you to share some of the benefits and we become the same.

LANGFITT: Qi says distrust is so deep, he's seen officials hug each other when greeting.

QI: (Through translator) This is not Chinese etiquette, but why did Chinese officials import it? The reality is they use the legitimate hugging and intimacy to pat down each other to check if the other person is carrying a listening device.

LANGFITT: Qi and I met in the back room of a restaurant. He's a big guy, well over six feet, with a lazy eye. Qi showed me some of his equipment. He unwrapped a machine about the size of an iPad, but much thicker. Okay, so he's taking out a really cool device out of a plastic case and it's called a wireless camera hunter. It has a video monitor and three antennae to detect wireless signals. It costs nearly $1,600.

QI: (Through translator) If this room were installed with bugs and they were working, then images they took would appear on this screen and we would see them clearly. This is scanning various frequencies.

LANGFITT: After talking to Mr. Qi, I came down to this electronics market in Shanghai and I picked up a detector that should be able to find hidden bugs as well as hidden cameras. It cost just about 35 bucks, and now I'm going to try it out. Okay. So I'm in the office of some people I know who are concerned about cameras and they are concerned about listening devices.

And I'm going to go hunting. I turned off office equipment and turn on the device, which buzzes when it picks up wireless signals emitted by bugs.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUZZING)

LANGFITT: Fax machine. That's telephone. Let's go over here. No, that fax machine is clean. Another telephone in another office is clearly - you can hear it yourself. It's clearly bugged.

Distrust is a growth market in China, and it's made Wei Wenjun a busy man. Wei's worked as a detective in Shanghai for two decades. I met him at a tea house. He wore a black cap, black leather jacket, and spoke through nicotine-stained teeth. Of his some 2,000 cases, Wei says 80 percent focused on infidelity. His nickname?

WEI WENJUN: (Speaking foreign language)

LANGFITT: The mistress.

WEI: (Speaking foreign language)

LANGFITT: Recently the government's been cracking down on detectives, enforcing a new law against illegally obtaining personal information. Scores of detectives have been arrested. Officials say they are trying to protect citizens' privacy. Wei says they are also trying to protect themselves.

WEI: (Through translator) Our profession is seen as a serious concern by China's high-level officials. Mistresses are what corrupt officials are most afraid of. That's the weakest link in their defense system.

LANGFITT: Wei says the volume of surveillance, infidelity and distrust are a sign of the times. He sees it as a natural result of the country's rush into capitalism, with no moral framework to guide its people.

WEI: (Through translator) The Chinese lost their belief system. The Chinese completely lost their souls.

LANGFITT: Qi Hong, the bug detector, feels much the same way. After a year helping people find surveillance devices, Qi quit. He found the process and its implications depressing. I felt very stressed and in pain, he said. I'd seen so many strange phenomena and illegal things. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.

RENEE MONTAGE, HOST:

You wouldn't need a secret camera to notice how bad the pollution is in many parts of China. In major cities like Beijing, visibility can be so bad, residents can see only a couple of hundred yards ahead. That smog has sent a record number of people to hospitals. It's forced airlines to cancel flights and highways to close.

INSKEEP: And China's government has warned people to stay inside, even as it has downplayed the problem, insisting it's just fog. Now a high-level official admits something needs to be done. The premier, Wen Jiabao, is calling for certain and effective steps to cut pollution, which suggests that pollution is now seen as not just a public health issue but a political problem as well.

MONTAGE: Yesterday, a prominent anti-pollution activist conducted a poll on one of China's popular social media sites. Within hours, tens of thousands had weighed in in support of a national air quality law. One blogger chimed in that anyone who doesn't want an air quality law is either a major polluter or a creature that doesn't breathe. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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